By Ross Miller
After a remarkably accomplished debut with ‘Garden State’, actor-writer-director Zach Braff (still probably best known from TV’s ‘Scrubs’) continued to mine a lot of the same ground, to lesser effect, in acting work such as ‘The Ex’ and particularly ‘The Last Kiss’, to name but a couple. Now he’s back in the director’s chair with ‘Wish I Was Here’ and while it may not reach the heights of his debut, he has delivered another impressive film about human connection.
Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling father, husband and actor who is still trying to find a purpose at age 35. With audition after audition but no real acting work on the horizon, he is forced to re-examine his life and starts to learn more about himself after he takes on the responsibility of home schooling his children because his dying father (Mandy Patinkin) can’t afford to keep paying for the school costs.
Braff’s latest film attempts to tackle some complex issues surrounding family life, particularly what it means to be a father in the modern age. His character is an actor who seems to be perpetually auditioning but never really getting there, always chasing a goal of becoming a successful thespian that’s consistently out of reach.
He at first seems to be a vein indie-man child version of the sort of character Adam Sandler usually plays and it almost gets to the point of “Why should we care?” However, Braff is smart enough to go deeper with the character and not making it all about him. In one of the film’s most effective scenes his wife, played by Kate Hudson giving possibly her best performance since Almost Famous, confronts him about her having put her dreams on hold, working in a boring office in order to support him in his quest.
The film flits from comedy to drama at the drop of a hat, sometimes working in the films favour, while others working against it. Often it provides for a nice meshing of comedy and tragedy, from the funny scenes with Aidan trying to home-school his children – played by Joey King and Pierce Gagnon (you may remember him as the little boy from ‘Looper’) – to the extremely moving scenes at the bedside of his dying father, played with real heart and emotion by Mandy Patinkin. It ties together rather beautifully when the subplot involving Aidan’s brother (played by Josh Gad) not having talked to his father in years comes to the forefront towards the end.
It’s a shame that at other times the mix of tears and laughter feels rather jarring, almost as if Braff is not quite sure which type of film he wants to be making. This spills over into the film’s most fantastical moments in which his character imagines himself as a spaceman-superhero visualised with CGI that looks like it’s been lifted straight from a video game. You can see what he was going for with them but these flights of fancy don’t really work. While they certainly add a certain visual flair to the film, they ultimately get in the way of otherwise grounded storytelling.
We may be firmly in first world problems territory here but Braff’s writing is layered enough for it to be likeably quirky and sincere without tipping over into irksome or self-aggrandizing. It also feels intensely personal, especially when it comes to the aforementioned subplot involving Aidan’s relationship with his estranged brother, which makes sense since Braff co-wrote it alongside his real-life brother, Adam. It’s a film full of little ideas and observations about life. While many of them may exceed his grasp, he has nevertheless made an admirably ambitious and genuinely heartfelt film that proves his first effort wasn’t just a lucky fluke.